Matthew Ship Trio – World Construct (ESP)
Matthew Shipp is prolific and collaborative, playing in configurations of all kinds, often improvising freely. To my ears, he is complete when working with a longstanding trio, and this band with Michael Bisio on bass and drummer Newman Taylor has been together for five years. World Construct is one of the best collections in this format because the balance of composition and improvisation is carefully considered and not always clear. I hear a performance like “Stop the World”, which is a set of “strummed” piano chords and a pensive, lovely melody for pizzicato bass, and I cannot be sure how spontaneous it was in the studio.
On the other hand, “Sly Glance” has a clear written theme that could almost have been used on a 1960s piano trio date, blossoming from an improvisation over a two-chord vamp into something that begins to break down what is expected. “Abandoned” is tumbling dissonance that sounds improvised from the ground up. Meanwhile, “Beyond Understanding” is an atmospheric exercise in layers of sound that might have been completely improvised but does not sound that way. So often on this recording, a listener can stop thinking about this because the music is purely hypnotic and graceful.
“Sustained Construct” is a slice of solo piano magic. The title track begins as a lovingly-structured solo piano two-part invention that invites the trio to swing as if Thelonious Monk had convened a band from heaven after listening to several Wynton Kelly sessions for inspiration. On this track, the album’s longest, the give-and-take among the trio is telepathic and joyful. In debates about whether this kind of very modern jazz is too odd for most folks, Matthew Shipp has a ready answer: the music sings with humanity and connection on every track.
Cameron Graves – Live From the Seven Spheres (Artistry/Mack Avenue)
Pianist Cameron Graves is associated with Los Angeles’s West Coast Get Down scene (the boiling pot that brought us Kamasi Washington, among others), and he also has experience as a pseudo-metal player. His first recording, 2017’s Planetary Prince, featured Washington, trombonist Ryan Porter, and the bassist Thundercat, but its vibe came from 1970s fusion: fast, precise melodies that exploded into high energy, rock-ish solos as well as suite-like compositions. His second recording, Seven, was mostly created with an even more fusiony band featuring guitarist Colin Cook, electric bassist Max Gerl and Mike Mitchell on drums—and that’s the band caught live in this new recording. Graves has played in Stanley Clarke’s band, so it makes sense that his sensibility is strongly derivative of Return to Forever: loud, baroque, dazzling.
The tunes, which come from both studio records, are Corea-esque most certainly—the twisting unison lines on “Mansion Worlds”, for example, evoke “Senor Mouse” without mistake. As an improviser, however, Graves is his own man, sticking to acoustic piano and playing like a wonder who builds excitement with lines of melody that double-back on themselves and pile up thrillingly. I know that some listeners claim to hear this and Washington’s music as new, integrating a hip-hop sensibility, as next-generation interesting. I don’t hear that at all. It’s contemporary jazz/rock fusion, but the playing is spectacular. Music doesn’t have to be novel to be terrific.
David Binney – Tomorrow’s Journey (Ghost Note)
Binney is an alto saxophonist and composer who has also been a significant producer and convener of musicians—for a long time in New York and recently in Los Angeles, where this recording was made with LA players. Binney’s New York sound was made in conjunction with many of the folks (Donny McCaslin, Adam Rogers, Dan Weiss, Craig Taborn, and many others) who are central to today’s most exciting, complex creative music. Tomorrow’s Journey is just as fine, with Binney’s light and cutting alto sound leading the ensembles with fleet fire.
The tunes use complex forms and time signatures but never sound particularly dissonant or “out”—in their tricky structure, Binney’s tunes come off as little big-band charts more than small group blowing vehicles. Binney’s music tends to exhibit nervous energy that holds you rapt more than it eases your soul. But the playing it inspires is hot. The piano improvisations from Paul Cornish and Luca Mendoza are incredibly fresh—a great reminder that LA is more than just the Get Down folks and not some kind of watered-down NYC. Benjamin Ring’s drums are tightly grooving, and the bassists also move the bottom of the band with precision.
The ballad “Loved” is brilliant and shows how Binney’s arrangements make just three horns sound like a small big band. Another example is “Opal”, where an active counter melody for bass and the piano’s left hand makes just the quartet sound huge, and then when the brass comes in, the arrangement gets much more layered. Recorded before Covid hit us, Tomorrow’s Journey is forward-thinking. Surely Binney is already onto something even newer.
CAN’T MISS DUO (OR TRIO?)
Mary Halvorson – Amaryllis and Belladonna (Nonesuch)
Guitarist Mary Halvorson is a vanguard artist and a MacArthur fellow. She has been a prime example of the New Jazz—that intersection of highbrow but “downtown” composed music from the classical tradition with bold improvised music in the line of Armstrong and Parker, Miles, Braxton, and Jimi too. Her music has rarely been easy to listen to, then, but it has almost always been available for enjoyment because her writing maintains a punch and tonality that connects your ears to classic jazz. Her bands are typically full of thrilling improvisers, and her guitar sound—including the signature use of a delay pedal to make her guitar squiggle sharply in and out of normal playing—is utterly distinctive. I haven’t loved every Halvorson project (let me be specific: I found her writing for art songs/voice on the two Code Girl recordings to be off-puttingly arty). Still, I am an unabashed fan of her quintet and octet records and most of her collaborative projects.
Halvorson has just released two connected short albums for the prestige Nonesuch label, and they are simultaneously extensions of her quintet/octet approach and brand new. Belladonna places her guitar in conversation with a string quartet (the Mivos Quartet). Amaryllis features a new sextet of brass (Jacob Garchik! and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill), Patricia Brennan’s vibes, guitar, and a rhythm section of bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—with Mivos joining as an additional set of voices on several tracks. The improvisations on the sextet+quartet (tentet?) recital are heart-stoppingly good, darting around six masterful charts. The subtle interaction between Halvorson at her most nuanced and four through-written string quartet compositions on the other set is some of the best chamber jazz ever.
On Amaryllis, the vibes/bass/drums rhythm section has the kind of open-but-contrapuntal effect that we all prize on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. There is some similarity in the hard-hitting way that O’Farrill’s and Garchik’s improvisations ride above that clatter in a melodic but free way. As you listen to the crisp and punchy title track, Halvorson’s affection for those old Blue Note dates seems apparent, but notice that when she brings the strings in for “Side Effect”, the track is still funky and rhythmic. “892 Teeth” is arguably more thrilling, however, as it allows the strings to be fully integrated in setting the tone for the arrangement and then provides Halvorson with a chance to improvise in more unconventional but still accessible way.
Belladonna might risk seeming more vanilla by comparison, but it simply isn’t the case. Halvorson’s string quartet charts mix tonality and surprise freely. On the opener, “Nodding Yellow”, for example, she blends lyrical bowed cello lines with more edgy pizzicato percussion sounds like dominos tumbling off a shelf, weaving in her near-acoustic guitar. A viola-cello melody takes over that has an Americana vibe, only to be followed a slower “movement” and, eventually, a rising figure over which Halvorson improvises with bent-note glee. Some folks will hear this strings-only outing as some kind of pleasant nod to the Nonesuch sensibility (Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, but also Chris Thile and Conor Oberst have released Nonesuch gleamers) – and “Haunted Head” sure is beautiful, yes, in a Frisell-ian way. But there are too many moments here that leap out as work that only Mary Halvorson could have produced. Even “Haunted Head” gets strange as she solos, but it does so in a way that curves her sensibility back toward tradition even as it launches outward.
In short, both of these records are (and in tandem particularly are) the finest of Halvorson’s career. That makes them recordings for the ages.
Jacob Garchik – Assembly (Yestereve)
Music does all sorts of things to us listeners. It soothes and romances us; it pumps us up for action and makes us look inward at ourselves. Music, particularly that part of its art that is not verbal, acts with a kind of mystery on the part of us that we can’t see.
The composer and arranger (and trombonist) Jacob Garchik makes music that does all that but also flabbergasts. It is so original and new – so ingenious in it conception, construction, and execution – that it dazzles even as it gets inside you. His latest recording, Assembly does this utterly.
Garchik is the kind of New Jazz artist who straddles worlds with ease. He is a primary arranger for the classical world’s hippest chamber ensemble, the Kronos Quartet. He was school up in bebop while studying at the Manhattan School of Music. He has played and recorded with a murderer’s row of “downtown”/Brooklyn talent: Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Mary Halvorson, Darcy James Argue, and Steve Lehman. He writes for dance companies and films. His recordings have been conceptual refractions of heavy metal, gospel, and big band music.
Assembly is a kind of improvised music you haven’t quite heard before. It is fresh enough to force us to rethink the intersection of composition, improvisation, and arrangement.
During the pandemic, Garchik gathered his longstanding trio-mates, Jacob Sacks (piano) and Dan Weiss (drums), along with bassist Thomas Morgan and soprano saxophone specialist Sam Newsome for a, well, jam session. Playing themeless swing-bop over-familiar blues and song forms, the band recorded heartfelt music in the widely-defined “jazz” tradition, free and formed, complex and also from the heart. But, Garchik being Garchik, he then took those recordings and sifted through them for interesting moments, cutting them up, looping them, and writing new material for the musicians to come back and record, placing it atop and amidst the altered portions of the original session.
Got that? A bebop jam session is cannibalized and reassembled, then new, wildly interesting material is superimposed over it, with keys and tempos sometimes mixed to create a sense of kaleidoscopic wonder.
It’s hard to think about but easy to listen to. “Pastiche”, for example, could not groove harder with mainstream appeal. The opening is a furiously swinging melodic line that the piano, trombone, and saxophone play in unison/octaves as Weiss and Morgan walk uptempo like they were Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The line itself, written out by the composer, sounds like it was pulled from a modern improvisation, with double-backs and stutter-steps aplenty, played in tight ensemble style. Suddenly, though, the tempo slows to a mid-tempo stroll for a Garchik trombone solo over a blues form. “Collage” layers an improvisation beneath a written, mournful fanfare at a different tempo and in another key, but it makes strange, otherworldly sense. “Bricolage” edits together moments from Morgan’s bass playing to create a loop for Newsome’s new improvisation, and “Homage” uses tons of overdubbing to create a wall of sound that has the band riffing over, around, and in reaction to itself.
It would be fun to describe each track in this review, but it is more fun to experience this record, to take it in. It is not a pop recording, but if you have a bit of a taste for instrumental dissonance, it is like a great studio production, its own kind of Sgt Peppers. Maybe Garchik also has something in common with Paul McCartney.